In Chicago, the majority of our public rail system (at least within the city proper) is above street level. Hence the name ‘The El,’ or simply ‘The L,’ which means ‘elevated.’ You may recognize this imagery from shows like ER or movies like The Fugitive. The train I take into downtown from my place is elevated for my entire journey.
So it is rare that I take one of the subterranean lines (still called ‘The El’), but some errands today had me taking the below-ground Blue Line not once but twice – once at lunch, once after work.
The more traditional SUBway has – let’s call it – a ‘grittier’ feel. It’s windier. Dirtier. And since the stations are guarded against the elements, they are way more likely to contain panhandlers. Once in a while, however, you’ll see what’s known as a ‘busker,’ or street performer. Think the Naked Cowboy on a much lesser scale (hey, everyone has to start somewhere).
Today, as I awaited my steel chariot, the busker who had selected my stop was simply singing, accapella. Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me.’ And you know? His voice was pure and excellent, his dynamics controlled, and he even made the song ‘his own’ (tm Randy Jackson) with some subtle stylings.
I was enjoying his performance and so thought it warranted more than just feigned aloof indifference, which is typically how I (and most big-city dwellers) react to those less fortunate with a cup or hat set in front of them. But alas, I check my wallet. No singles. I can give him a 10-dollar bill, or 50 cents. A ten seems unreasonable, even if it is the holidays. But as I think about dropping change into the guy’s money receptacle, I feel guilty/embarrassed. I envision Chris Farley (R.I.P) as motivational speaker Matt Foley cursing, ‘With that nickel, I can get myself a cup of JACK SQUAT!’
I finally conclude that 50 cents is better than nothing. Besides, it’s the effort that counts. I’m sure that will be true as the guy later tries to buy a can of Spaghettios or a bus pass.
So I wander over and contribute my meager offering. Clang, clash, clang go the quarters. Other bystanders follow. Like … five others. Wihtin seconds. In the middle of the day. I was a trendsetter! An early adopter! I should get a cut of all future busker-ing profits!
Hours later, when I revisted the same stop, the same dude was still there in good voice (take THAT, Bruce Springsteen!). But this time he had a guitar-playing friend! And whatdaya know, the first song I heard them perform was ‘Stand By Me.’ Guy #1 had to break around ‘the sky that we look upon’ because he got a call on his cell phone. Probably booking a bar mitzvah gig or something.
They headed into Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’ before segueing into Christmas carols. Even the disgruntled Chicago police officers waiting on the platform couldn’t help but smile. And for once, I wasn’t super annoyed at my long rush-hour wait for the train.
I dropped a bit more change into the new guy’s guitar case. Thanks for the effort, guys. I truly hope it pays off.